Ursula Le Guin on imagination

Belstone

In my reading life, I've been bouncing back and forth between fiction and memoir-tinged nonfiction lately, thinking about the difference between them (in terms of the writing craft), and about the tricksy place where the line between them falls. I was reminded of this passage from Words Are My Matter by Ursula K. Le Guin, and so I'll share them with you:

"In workshops on story writing, I've met many writers who want to work only with memoir, tell only their own story, their experience. Often they say. 'I can't make up stuff, that's too hard, but I can tell what happened.' It seems easier to them to take material directly from their experience than to use their experience as material for making up a story. They assume they can just write what happened.

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Belstone 3

"That appears reasonable, but actually, reproducing experience is a very tricky business requiring both artfulness and practice. You may find you don't know certain important facts or elements of the story you want to tell. Or the private experience so important to you may not be very interesting to others, requires skill to make it meaningful, moving, to the reader. Or, being about yourself, it gets all tangled up with ego, or begins to be falsified by wishful thinking. If you're honestly trying to tell what happened, you find facts are very obstinate things to deal with. But if you begin to fake them, to pretend things happened in a way that makes a nice neat story, you're misusing imagination. You're passing invention off as fact: which is, among children at least, called lying.

"Fiction is invention, but it is not lies. It moves on a different level of reality from either fact-finding or lying.

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"I want to talk here about the difference between imagination and wishful thinking, because it's important both in writing and in living. Wishful thinking is thinking cut loose from reality, a self-indulgence that is often merely childish, but may be dangerous. Imagination, even in its wildest flights, is not detached from reality: imagination acknowledges reality, starts from it, and returns to enrich it. Don Quixote indulges his longing to be a knight till he loses touch with reality and makes an awful mess of his life. That's wishful thinking. Miguel Cervantes, by working out and telling the invented story of a man who wishes he were a knight, vastly increased our store of laughter and human understanding. That's imagination. Wishful thinking is Hitler's Thousand-Year Reich. Imagination is the Constitution of the United States.

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"A failure to see the difference is in itself dangerous. If we assume that imagination has no connection with reality but is mere escapism, and therefore distrust it and repress it, it will be crippled, perverted, it will fall silent or speak untruth. The imagination, like any basic human capacity, needs exercise, discipline, training, in childhood and lifelong.

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"One of the best exercises for the imagination, maybe the very best, is hearing, reading, and telling or writing made-up stories. Good inventions, however fanciful, have both congruity with reality and inner coherence. A story that's mere wish-fulfilling babble, or coercive preaching concealed in a narrative, lacks intellectual coherence and integrity: it isn't a whole thing, it can't stand up, it isn't true to itself.

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"Learning to tell or read a story that is true to itself is about the best education a mind can have."

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Words: The passage above is from "Making Up Stories," published in Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life & Books by Ursula K. Le Guin (Small Beer Press, 2016). The poem in the picture captions, wading through "the river of words" via the Gaelic alphabit, is from High Country (Sandstone Press, 2015). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: A walk by the river near Belstone on Dartmoor, with Howard and the hound.


On borders and stories

Becuma of the White Skin by Arthur Rackham

Following on from yesterday's post, here's one more passage from Thin Places by Kerri ní Dochartaigh, a book about myth, land, language, trauma (both personal and collective) and its healing, and a deep meditation on the nature of borders, physical and internal, seen and unseen. Reflecting again on the "thin places" to be found in the north of Ireland (and elsewhere), she writes:

"My grandfather was born in the same week as the Irish border. He was a storyteller, and his most affecting tales, the ones he gave me that have shaped his life, where about place, about how we relate to it, to ourselves, and to one another. Good seanchaidhthe -- storytellers -- never really tell you anything, though. They sit by the fire in the hearth; they draw the chairs in close; they shut all the windows so the old lore doesn't fall on the wrong ears. They fill the room with a sense of ease, a sense of all being as it should be. The words, when they spill quietly out of the mouth of the one who has been entrusted with them, dance in the space, at one with the flames of the fire. It is, as always, up to those who listen to do with them what they will.

Muirne With Dogs by Arthur Rackham

"The stories he shared were fleeting, unbidden; they came and went as quickly as the bright, defiant end sparks of a fire, well on its way to going out. The stories, those glowing embers of words, were about places that were known to hide away, sometimes from all view. As if their locations are to be found in between the cracks, or floating above the grey Atlantic. Places that he mostly didn't even have names for but that he could conjure up as though they were right there in the same room. He called such places 'skull of a shae'. Now, I have come to think of the shae as 'shade', a nod to the almost ghost-like nature he saw such places as having. The places he spoke of seemed to scare him, a wee bit, or maybe it was talking about them that unsettled him. He came from a strict and hard background that allowed very little room for the voicing of much beyond the grind of being alive. I will remember, always, how he spoke of paths, particularly ones he found when walking across the border from Derry into Donegal. Paths on which friends and he had seen and heard things they were never really able to understand.

Title page for Irish Fairy Tales illustrated by Arthur Rackham"The places he spoke of were locations where people felt very different from how they normally do. Places from which people came away changed. In these places you might experience the material and spiritual worlds coming together. Blood, worry and loss might sit together under the same tree as silence, stillness and hope. He spoke, not often but with raw honesty, of places where people had found answers and grace, where they had learned to forgive, where they had made peace and room for healing. Places where a veil is lifted away and light streams in, where you see a boundary between worlds disappear right before your eyes, places where you are allowed to cross any borders and boundaries have no sway. Lines and circles, silence and stillness -- all is as it should be for that flickering gap in time. He never named the places, of course, and the first time he brought me to one -- Kinnagoe Bay -- on a soft, pink August afternoon in the late 1980s, he never spoke of any of this at all. He quietly read his magazine about pigeon racing, poured my granny's tea, and let me be."

Becuma by Arthur Rackham

If you need any more persuasion to seek out Ní Dochartaigh's remarkable book, I recommend reading her essay "Unnameable Things," found online at The Clearing (Little Toller Books).

The art today is from Irish Fairy Tales by James Stephens, illustrated by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939).

Becuma of the White Skin by Arthur Rackham

The passage quoted above is from Thin Places by Kerri ní Dochartaigh (Canongate, 2021); all rights reserved by the author. The illustrations by Arthur Rackham were first published by Macmillan in 1920, and are now in public domain.


The Tree Tribe

Borderlands by Celia de Serra

The thing you need to know, child, is that trees do speak, they do tell tales, they sing when the've a mind to, they are gigglers, gossips, grumblers, cataloguing every ache and pain, and yet they hold no grudges, claim no debts, speak ill of no creature. They have their tempers, yes, tantrums of branches lashed in gusts and gales, but then they come to rest in stillness, spent, humming contentedly. You've heard them, just yesterday. You thought it was only the wind.

River Valley by Celia de Serra

The thing you need to know is that each morning every tree stands tall and chants its name, its history, its kinship web and lineage. You've heard them, dear, but thought it was the dawn chorus of birds.

Summer Nights by Celia de Serra

The thing you need to know is that the trees tell stories older than the oldest tales of humankind. By dusk, by night, by starlight, you have marked their midnight murmuring -- you told me so, but thought it was just water rushing through the stream.

Toward This Place Lightly by Celia de Serra

The thing you need to know, child, is that trees do speak, in their own language. They mutter in the crackle autumn leaves; they sigh as snow settles at their feet; they utter exquisite arboreal poems as each tender young leaf unfurls; they laugh in shivers of green and gold when tickled by a summer's breeze.

Still There by Celia de Serra

The thing you need to know, child, is that trees do speak, in the tree language. And yes, you will understand their speech one day, root child, sweet sapling.

Still Here Too by Celia de Serra

West Borders by Celia de Serra

The beautiful drawings today are by British artist Celia de Serra, who was born in Canterbury in 1973, received a BA in Fine Art and English Literature from Exeter University in 1995, and now exhibits her work extensively throughout the UK. De Serra is a founding member of The Arborealists, a group of contemporary artists dedicated to the subject of trees. Her art has appeared in Under the Greenwood: Picturing the British Tree and other publications.

"I live in the Welsh borders in the hills near Offa’s Dyke," she writes. "I spend a lot of time out and about walking and cycling armed with a Ordinance Survey Map, sketchbook and camera. I look for inspiring places and images that have something about them and an emotional hook. Light is particularly important to me -- the way in which it can transform something small, or illuminate a place in a curious or dramatic way. Always a painter, I returned to drawing several years ago and this has become my primary medium at the moment; I love the directness of drawing, the marks, the tonal variations and the capacity to build up layers and depth without the confusion that colour can sometimes bring to form."

To see more of de Serra's work, visit her website, her Instagram page, and The Arborealists site.

Flux by Celia de Serra

Seven Little Tales from Hedgespoken Press

Words: "The Tree Tribe" is one of seven little pieces of mine published in Seven Little Tales (Hedgespoken Press, 2018). 

Pictures: The drawings above are: Borderlands,  River Valley, Summer Nights, Towards This Place Lightly, Still There,  Still Here Too, West Borders, and Flux by Celia de Serra. All rights reserved by the artist.


On language and mystery

Forest by Alexandra Dvornikova

From  "Learning the Grammar of Animacy"  by Potawatomi author, educator, and biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer:

Fungi by Alexandra Dvornikova"I come here to listen, to nestle in the curve of roots, in a soft hollow of pine needles. To lean my bones against the column of white pine, to turn off the voice in my head until I can hear the voices outside of it. The shhh of wind in the needles. Water trickling over rock, nuthatch tapping, chipmunks digging, beechnut falling, mosquito in my ear and something more, something that is not me, for which we have no language, the wordless being of others in which we are never alone. After the drumbeat of my mother's heart, this was my first language.

"I could spend a whole day listening. And a whole night. And in the morning, without my hearing it, there might be a mushroom that was not there the night before, creamy white, pushed up from the pine needle duff, out of darkness to light, still glistening with the fluid of its passage. Puhpowee

Mushroom pattern by Alexandra Dvornikova

"Listening in wild places, we witness conversation in a language that is not our own. I think now, that it was a longing to comprehend this language I hear in the woods that led me to science, to learn over the years to speak fluent Botany. Which should not, by the way, be mistaken for the language of plants. In science I did learn another language, of careful observation, an intimate vocabulary that names each little part. To name and describe you must first see, and science polishes the gift of seeing. Science is a beautiful language, rich in particulars, revealing the intricate mechanisms of the world. I honor the strength of that language which has become a second tongue to me. But, beneath the richness of its vocabulary, its descriptive power, something feels missing, the same something that swells around you and in you, when you listen to the world. The pattern of its surface hides an empty center, like a gorgeous tapestry over a scarred wall. Science is a language of distance which reduces a being to its working parts, the language of objects. The language we speak, however precise, is based on a profound error in grammar, which seems to me now, a grave loss in translation from the native languages of these shores. 

Lost Land by Alexandra Dvornikova"My first taste of the missing language was the word puhpowee, on my tongue. I stumbled upon it in a book by Anishnaabe ethnobotanist Keewaydinoquay, a treatise on the traditional uses of fungi by our people. Puhpowee, she explained, translates as 'the forces that causes mushrooms to to push up from the earth overnight.' As a biologist, I was stunned that such a word existed. In all its technical vocabulary, Western science has no such term, no words to hold this mystery. You'd think that biologists, of all people, would have words for life. But, I think in scientific language, our terminology is used to define the boundaries of our knowing. That which lies beyond our grasp remains unnamed. In the three syllables I could see an entire process of close observation in the damp morning woods, of the mystery of their coming, the formulation of a theory for which English has no equivalent. The makers of this word understood a world of being, full of unseen energies which animate the world. I've cherished that word for many years, a talisman, and longed for the people who gave a name to the life force of mushrooms. The language that holds puhpowee is one that I wanted to speak. The word for rising, for emergence, became a signpost for me, when I learned that it belonged to the language of my ancestors."

Forest Treasures by Alexandra Dvornikova

I recommend reading Kimmerer's essay in full, first published in The Leopold Outlook magazine (Winter 2012) and available online here. These ideas were developed further in her remarkable book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants (discussed on Myth & Moor here) -- and also in a number of talks and essays such as "Speaking of Nature" (discussed on Myth & Moor here.)

I believe Kimmerer's work has relevance to those of us working in fantasy and mythic arts, for we, too, must learn to speak a language suited to describing Mystery: a language woven from myth, folklore, symbolism, poetry and dream. The fantasist's world is an animate world, shimmering with unseen energies. The grammar and gramarye of its language is every mythic artist's birthright, for the world of Story welcomes us all. It's a tongue that any of us can learn. Enter the forest, or the tale, and listen....

Fire Fox by Alexandra Dvornikova

Mushroom Dress and Mushroom Hat by Alexandra Dvornikova

The imagery today is by Alexandra Dvornikova, a contemporary folk artist and illustrator from Saint Petersburg, Russia. She studied print-making, graphics, and art therapy at Saint Petersburg Stieglitz State Academy of Art and Design, and now creates bookscards and printsfabric designs, animations, and more.  She finds inspiration in the Russian fairy tales she heard as a child, as well as masks, music, ritual, nature and ecology, the folklore of animals, mosses and mushrooms, venomous plants, and lonely cabins deep in the woods. To see more of her art, please visit Dvornikova's website and  Instagram page. 

Mushroom Bed by Alexandra Dvornikova

Magic by Alexandra Dvornikova

Words: The passage quoted above is from "The Grammar of Animacy" by Robin Wall Kimmerer (The Leopold Outlook magazine, Winter 2012). all rights reserved by the author.

Related posts: For another look at the language of science contrasted to the language of Story, go here. Other posts on the interesection of science and art are archived here.

Pictures: The paintings by Alexandra Dvornikova are Forest, Fungi, Mushroom Pattern, Lost Land, Forest Treasures, Fire Fox, Mushroom Dress, Mushroom Hat, Mushroom Bed, and Magic. All rights reserved by the artist. Dvornikova's work also appeared in a previous Myth & Moor post: Stepping into story.


Telling stories

Winter Beech by David Wyatt

In "Hallowed Ground," Chelsea Steinauer-Scudder discusses the importance of myth and story in countering the narratives that foster the ecological destruction of our world. Steinauer-Scudder's essay is focused on the work of theologian Martin Palmer, exploring how the sacred stories of world religion can change the world for the better (or worse) -- but secular stories are powerful too. As storytellers, myth-makers and artists of all stripes, what kind of narratives are we creating? And are we cognizant of their potency? Steinauer-Scudder writes: Gidleigh Goat by David Wyatt

"There are Theravada Buddhist monks in Thailand who follow the Buddha’s example of meditating in natural settings, particularly beneath trees; they have a practice of going into the forest during the rainy season of Phansa and building small huts, where they remain for several months to meditate. Traditionally, when the huts appeared, it was understood that human beings were not to disturb or damage the surrounding forest; it became an extension of the monks’ prayers and practice: sacred land.

"Thailand and Cambodia have seen some of the most devastating logging and clear-cutting in a world where 18.7 million acres of forest across the globe are lost to deforestation annually. Between 1961 and 1998, an estimated two-thirds of Thailand’s remaining forest was destroyed. In the 1980s, the logging effort increased and entire forests began to disappear, sometimes in the course of a single day.

"In 1988 the excessive deforestation of a mountainside led to a landslide, exacerbating floods and killing over three hundred people. The monks saw the land suffering and the people suffering as a result. A small number of monks began to reexamine Buddhist scriptures, seeking ways to protect the forests through traditional rituals and teachings. The Buddha taught that all things are interconnected, that the health of the whole is bound to the health of every sentient being. If you harm rivers, trees, animals, soil, you harm yourself. Some of the monks began to intentionally seek out threatened and illegally logged forests for their Phansa meditation, but it became increasingly dangerous for them. Some were assassinated.

"And then one monk began a practice of ordaining trees. After locating the oldest and largest trees in a forest, he -- in the presence of members of his surrounding lay community -- recited the appropriate scripture and then wrapped the trees in traditional orange robes, just as is done for a novice monk. The practice has spread across Thailand and into Cambodia. Most loggers will not commit the taboo of harming a monk, even if that monk is a tree.

Tilly and Old Oak

" 'We are a narrative species. The faiths are successful because they tell bloody good stories and they adapt them as they go along,' Martin is telling me over a coffee break in Bristol. 'So all across Southeast Asia, there are these trees that have been ordained as monks, and that means that within a sort of half-mile penumbra of that, it’s sacred. There’s no way a Cambodian or a Thai is going to cut down a monk tree.' ARC has worked with monks in Thailand and Cambodia to set up environmental-education centers, trainings, and awareness campaigns. It helped to found ABE, the Association of Buddhists for the Environment, a network of monks and nuns grounded in Buddhist teachings and traditions. 'It’s been very local, very specific [work]. And most of it is built on the fact that, whatever else is gone, a sense that a sacred place is something other still remains.'

Once upon a time"It’s this sense of place and the stories that go along with it, Martin says, that can become catalysts for change. When it comes to addressing ecological degradation and potential collapse, most of us have not been telling the right ones. A transformative story, when told at the right time in the right place, has the ability to alter the course of things. 'There’s only two things that have ever done that successfully in history: art and religion. And for most of history, they’ve been synonymous,' Martin says. ARC works with Jains in India, Shintōists in Japan, Taoists in China, Jews, Muslims, Zoroastrians—operating on the belief that religion has consistently told humanity’s most enduring stories, that parable can be more effective than science, that myths are more powerful than data.

"As we wend our way through the city, I’m beginning to picture Martin as a real-life, intellectual version of Roald Dahl’s BFG: a lanky, well-intentioned giant who roams the globe, but instead of collecting dreams and delivering them to sleeping children, he is collecting stories. Fables and myths, parables and songs. His life’s work has been to pull forward or uncover narratives from traditions and texts, and support local faith communities in doing the same."

Fetching Water by David Wyatt

Oak

Later in the piece, Steinauer-Scudder adds a note of caution:

Acorn by David Wyatt"To seek and reveal stories on behalf of others is, in many ways, a fraught strategy; it can carry the odor of imposition when it comes from outside a local culture. But in a time when perhaps the most imposing and pervasive story of all -- consumerism -- is driving species to extinction, deforesting lands, fueling wildfires in the American West, and depleting topsoil and the oceans, one wonders how we can help one another to turn our attention and efforts to different ends. How can we remember that stories, too, have agency? ARC, as an organization, is international, but its lifeblood is comprised of communities around the world, each facing their own version of environmental crisis, each working within the narratives and traditions that have shaped its landscapes and identities. Such stories cannot be arbitrarily deposited. In order to thrive, they need fertile soil, a caring hand, relationship, understanding, shared history. When the conditions are right, they can root themselves or unfurl a new leaf.

Devon oaks in the making

“'[Religion is] not the silver bullet,' Martin says. It certainly should not be left to faith communities alone to cultivate the stories that might begin to heal a world in crisis, environmentally and spiritually. But he does believe that religion holds our most enduring stories, told again and again throughout the ages, even when humanity sometimes uses them to destructive ends. Secular communities can look to the faiths as examples of what it means to embody powerful narratives. Religious or no, we can find new ways to tell ancient stories. New language to bring people back to an ancient understanding.

" 'Human beings are capable of extraordinary change if given the space to do it,' says Martin. 'Not by fear, and not by data. But by story.'”

Spinning Moonlight by David Wyatt

I highly recommend reading Chelsea Steinauer-Scudder's "Hallowed Ground" in full in Emergence Magazine. You'll find it here. The wondrous art today is by our good friend David Wyatt, a great lover of trees and stories. To learn more about his work, go here.

Tilly rests in the roots of Old Oak

A cluster of Devon leaves

Words: The two passages above are quoted from "Hallowed Ground" by Chelsea Steinauer-Scudder, published in Emergence Magazine (January 15, 2019); all rights reserved by the author. Emergence, by the way, is terrific, if you're not reading it already.

Pictures: The paintings above are Winter Beech, Gidleigh Goat, Fetching Water, Acorn, and Spinning Moonlit by David Wyatt; all rights reserved by the artist.